2013-2018 Copyright © Kirkurd and Newlands Parish Church of Scotland | Scottish Charity Number SC011353
Romanno Bridge, West Linton, EH46 7BZ
The story of Newlands Kirk was originally collated and written by A. D. F. Leishman of Mountain Cross.
It has been updated by Jimmy Harris of Blyth Bridge
On a Summer’s day almost 700 years ago, the Abbot and monks of Dunfermline Abbey celebrated the Feast of the Seven Brothers. Among them they had a guest, John Graham, Lord of Dalkeith. Moved perhaps by gratitude for their hospitality he marked the occasion by presenting Newlands Church and its grounds to the abbey. The record of this gift, on 7th July 1317, is one of the earliest references, yet discovered, referring to Newlands Kirk. But, like many fragmentary testimonies of the past it implies more than the mere statement for, if the church was active in the 14th century, it may well have been founded as a place of worship several centuries earlier.
During the ensuing years Newlands did not remain under the monks of Dunfermline Abbey but its patronage seems to have passed through a number of hands. In 1475, for instance, “the benefice of the parish church of Newlands in the Diocese of Glasgow” became linked with the Collegiate Church of Dalkeith and at the beginning of the 16th century it is mentioned as being in the Diocese of St. Andrews. It is interesting too to note that a charter by Mary, Queen of Scots to James, Earl of Morton of the barony of Newlands with the advowson of its church was ratified by Parliament in 1567. It was about this time that the Earl commenced the building of Drochil Castle but, before its completion, he was beheaded in 1581 on a charge of being accessory to the murder of Darnley. <Top>
Newlands seems to have got its name when the Lords of Dalkeith came into possession of the lands around Kirktoun (presumably the village round the church) and brought these “new-lands” into cultivation. Little remains of the original Kirktoun save a double cottage close to the river where it flows under the old stone bridge. Cant’s Walls, as it was then called, used to provide a public hostelry and also, for a time, the local school. Dr Pennecuik, writer and author of the first history of Peeblesshire, seems to have had a great affection for the former and, after a day’s fishing on the Lyne, frequently resorted to the hostelry for a convivial evening with his many friends. His acquaintance, Allan Ramsey, known to fame for his charming pastoral, “The Gentle Shepherd” may on occasion have been one of those. When the doctor died in 1722, he was buried, at his own wish, in Newlands Old Kirk yard. <Top>
Legends refuse to be pinned down by dates but to the monastic period, either at the initial building or the re-building of the old church, is attached a fascinating local anecdote. Apparently the monks and the parishioners disagreed about the side of the river on which the church should be built. Eventually, contrary to the wishes of the monks, it was decided to build it on the Bordlands side. The stones were collected, the foundations dug, and all was ready to commence building the very next day. But that night a terrific thunderstorm broke over the valley. As the thunder crashed and rumbled and crashed again the parishioners were terrified to see mysterious forms flitting to and fro across the water in the brilliant flashes of lightning. When dawn broke every stone was found on the opposite side of the river, the side favoured by the monks. What could the bewildered onlookers do but accept this as a clear indication of Divine direction? Accept it they did, and the church was built on the gently sloping land at the foot of Whiteside Hill, where its ruins still stand today among the tombs. <Top>
Crossing the river could not have been easy in the early days for the Lyne flows dark and quite deep in winter. The stone bridge built originally about 1760 is said to have been preceded by a wooden structure described by Brown of Newhall as “scarce passable.” Pedestrian Church goers may also have resorted to stilting, using the fords, which then criss-crossed the river between Stevenson and Drochil to the Church. <Top>
Anyone who takes time to step aside from the hurried world to wander round the churchyard and explore the ruins can hardly fail to be moved by the love and skill that the monks gave to the building of even their simplest churches. There is too a benediction of peace that clings to land consecrated for so many centuries to Christian worship. Traditionally many of the stones used for the building and its repairs were taken from Grahame’s Wells, a stronghold about which little is known but which at one time stood about 160 yards down the Lyne. Built in a simple rectangle without aisles or any structural division between nave and chancel Newlands is typical – says the Royal Commission’s 1967 survey of Ancient Monuments in Peeblesshire – of the smaller Scottish churches of the late Middle Ages. Yet even in its simplicity there is a timeless beauty in what is left, outstandingly the original round arched doorway and the Norman east window which must at one time have stood above the Altar. <Top>
Among the carved stones of special interest is a fragment of yellow sandstone with an incised Latin cross, probably taken from a medieval tombstone and now built into the churchyard wall to the north west of the church. In the graveyard itself can be seen a number of tombstones of the “skull and crossbone” period. One quaint stone more legible than most is to the memory of Andrew Borrowman who died at the age of 19 years. On either side of the deceased stands a belted figure – celestial beings come to escort the soul on the heavenly journey. On the west side of the church are a number of walled family burial grounds belonging to local lairds of earlier days, including those of Halmyre, Lamancha and The Whim. <Top>
After the Reformation the old church was considerably altered to bring it into line with Presbyterian standards. A new doorway was added with the date 1705 carved on its lintel. Additional windows were put in and the Norman Arched window at the east end was partially built up to allow outside access to the new three sided gallery. <Top>
Unfortunately before a century had passed disaster befell this new-old Border church with its thatched roof and earthen floor. About 1795 it was destroyed by fire and all the communion plate and the kirk sessions records were lost. The fire occurred during the incumbency of the Rev Charles Findlater and there is some doubt as to where or how he and his assistant and successor, the Rev. James Charteris, carried on the services during the 43 years that lapsed before the new church was ready for use. Possibly the burnt out building was temporarily roofed over to give the minister and his congregation some protection from the weather. The old church must at some time been partially restored as the ordination of Rev. James Charteris is recorded as taking place within the building on 14th November 1834. It is interesting to note that James Charteris was a Cadet of the Wemyss family whose lands still march, today, with the manse and the Glebe. <Top>
The Manse, said to be the oldest in Peeblesshire, is set at the entrance to a beautiful little glen, the lower part most attractively embraced by the garden which is surrounded by many fine trees including a wide spreading copper beech on the lawn. Repairs are recorded in 1709 but the present Manse, probably built on the structure and lines of the older building was erected in 1740. Among the old outhouses, stables, byre, etc. is a coach house with two interesting stones inset. One, on the corner adjoining the road up to Whiteside, bears the initials “T.M. 1600.” The other stone on the garden side of the same building is carved with what looks like a wheel described by the Royal Commission as a “six armed floreated crosshead”. On the same stone, now very indistinct, are carved the letters “CHRISTIN” and a pair of tailor’s shears, sometimes used as a symbol of death. Both stones are thought to be part of tombstones, the latter possibly dating back to the 13th century. <Top>
In the glebe immediately in front of the Manse stands a gnarled old sycamore tree planted in 1718 by six year old Christine Paton, a daughter of the minister of the day. Though familiar in Scotland today the European Sycamore (acer pseudo-plantanus) was still rare at the beginning of the 18th century, an early writer described it as “only growing in the walkes and places of noble men”. Its life span seldom exceeds two centuries though John Knox is said to have preached under one which can still be seen at Bishopton. During Mr Findlater’s incumbency “little” Christine returned as an old lady of 80 years to see her tree and was delighted to find it leafy and flourishing. Before buses simplified trips further afield many church members can recall happy Sunday School picnics under its shade. Not far from the tree, nearing the river, is an old well which at some time probably supplied water for the Manse. Under the cover stone its waters still glisten deep down and far out of reach. <Top>
The strange terraces on the steep hill just behind the church have aroused much controversy among antiquarians, but on one point at least they are now agreed. Despite the evidence of a large Roman camp in the neighbouring parish of Lyne the terraces are not of Roman origin. The Royal Commission in its recent survey describes them as “one of the best groups of cultivation terraces in Scotland.” Thirteen can still easily be counted and there are traces of at least two more. With the widening of the road several of the lowest seem to have been demolished. Alexander Gordon records that in his day (1726) the terraces extended for a whole mile like some vast amphitheatre. In the trees above are the traces of a settlement of some kind from which a track seems to have led down towards the church. <Top>
Behind the terraces and across the steep glen, well hidden by the rising ground, stands a now roofless cottage. Hearsay has it that Burke or Hare, or perhaps both of them, lived here at some time or used it as a hide-out during there nefarious doings. Another happier tradition, which as yet no one had had the good fortune to prove, tells that somewhere under the mysterious terraces lies buried a sheepskin full of gold. <Top>
The new church was finally opened in December 1838. It is a building with no outstanding architectural features, its three arched doors giving access to both the church and the gallery. Among the simple pine pews are one or two of the old fashioned box type. Common to a number of Scottish churches of the period it has two pulpits one above the other. For many years the lower one was used by the precentor with his tuning fork till, in 1918, a harmonium was installed to be replaced about 40 years later by the pipe organ in use today. An interest custom occasionally adopted by other country churches was the use of a moveable communion table of the trestle type which stretched the whole width of the church and round which the communicants gathered to partake the Sacrament. Afterwards the table was removed to be brought out again the next Communion Sunday. Later this custom was given up, the congregation remaining in their pews as they do now. <Top>
There are two stained glass windows one to the memory of James Mackintosh of Lamancha and the other to the Rev James Charteris, last minister of the old church and first minister of the new. He is buried in the old church near the spot where he was ordained. The two mural tablets are to the memory of the Kennedys of Romanno and Dr. John Milne who ministered at Newlands for 34 years. Outside on the north wall are the names of the parishioners who fell in the two world wars. A lovely oak Communion Table, “Gifted by a few worshippers for blessings received” (Christmas 1925), now stands on a raised platform under the pulpit. And two other recent gifts – a font presented by the Woman’s Guild and an oak lectern in memory of an elder, Mr David Bonsor, greatly enhanced the beauty and dignity of the interior of the church. There was no artificial lighting till 1939 when Blyth Bridge Church was closed and Newlands fell heir to their lamps. Later on 1958 electricity was introduced. <Top>
When, recently the belfry was found to be unsafe it was taken down and replaced with a cross, the bell being hung between two iron brackets on the windowless wall to the right of the main entrance. On the low wall in front of this door can be seen the two halves of the old stone ball which surmounted the belfry. On them are inscribed the names of the builders – C. and T. Lawson and P. Veitch. Mr. Lawson (Snr) was a church elder of longstanding. <Top>
The most recent extension, carried out in 1969, besides providing a much needed vestry and a large pleasant room for meetings in connection with church work, is a remarkable architectural achievement. The stones and slate taken from the ruined mansion-house of Bordlands have been perfectly matched and so deftly used by the builder – Ramsey Aytoun of Blyth Bridge – that the new annexe in no way jars with the lines of the old church but rather improves them. A few years ago, to meet the rising need for parking space, part of the Glebe land, opposite the Church, was built up and thanks to the willing hands of Elders and helpers and ample car park was provided, overlooking the Lyne water. There was also a major renovation of the church in 2004. <Top>
Through the passing centuries the river, singing away serenely to itself, must have seen it all – the unknown missionaries who first brought the good news of Christianity to the district then the building of the ancient church. How it must secretly have chuckled among its pebbles about the identity of the mysterious forms flitting across its water on the night of the storm! Sunday after Sunday it must have seen the people of the parish gather to praise God in the little thatched church; the small girl in the Manse who planted the sycamore must often have played beside it and many a medieval fisherman fishing from its banks must have been blessed in his quiet sport, as men as blessed today by the beauty of its wild flowers and the charm of its birds. And when disaster came from the flames, leaping up from the burning church, would be reflected ruby red in its clear waters. As time passed and the stone bridge was built at Cant’s Walls, the sharp ring of hooves and the grinding of cart wheels would often mingle with the voice of the stream. Today motor cycles roar across it their riders heedless of the quiet beauties so near. Yet unperturbed the river goes happily on its way singing its changing yet ever changeless song. The river is indeed a symbol, but only a symbol, of the eternal joyous message of Christianity that Newlands Kirk and its community have stood for through the fluctuating centuries of a self-important world – the simple and profound message of The Master, that God is Love and without Him we can do nothing.